Notes on the State of Virginia

Notes on the State of Virginia
Notes was the only full-length book authored by Thomas Jefferson.

Notes on the State of Virginia was a book written by Thomas Jefferson. He completed the first edition in 1781, and updated and enlarged the book in 1782 and 1783. Notes on the State of Virginia collects the answers which Jefferson prepared for questions posed to him about Virginia by François Barbé-Marbois, then Secretary of the French delegation in Philadelphia, the temporary capital. Often dubbed the most important American book published before 1800, Notes on the State of Virginia is both a compilation of data and a vigorous and often eloquent argument about the nature of the good society, which Jefferson saw incarnated by Virginia.


Publication and contents

Notes was anonymously published in Paris in a limited, private edition of a few hundred copies in 1784. Its first public English-language edition, issued by John Stockdale in London, appeared in 1787. It was the only full-length book by Jefferson published during his lifetime, though he did issue a Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, generally known as Jefferson's Manual, in 1801.

Notes includes some of Jefferson's most memorable statements of belief in such political, legal, and constitutional principles as the separation of church and state, constitutional government, checks and balances, and individual liberty. Jefferson refutes the argument that nature, plant life, animal life, and human life all degenerate in the New World by contrast with their state in the Old World. He countered the propositions of the French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in his authoritative Histoire Naturelle.[citation needed]

In two chapters, called "Queries," Jefferson expressed his hostility to slavery (Query XVIII, "Manners") and his attempt to explain and justify it, by reference to what he called "the real distinctions which nature has made" between people of European descent and people of African descent (Query XIV, "Laws"). According to Laws, Jefferson held contemporary beliefs that Blacks were inferior to Whites in terms of potential citizenship, and he wanted them deported. Jefferson's solution to racial issues entailed gauging what he perceived to be the common good for both Whites and Blacks. He proposed a three-fold process of education, emancipation, and colonization of free blacks to locations in Africa. [1]

Jefferson and slavery

Jefferson's notes on resettling freed blacks elsewhere provide a glimpse into the mentality and anxieties of some American slave-owners after the Revolution. He reasons:

"It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."

Some slave-owners feared race wars could ensue upon emancipation, due not least to natural retaliation for the injustices of prolonged oppression. Jefferson may have thought his fears justified in the wake of revolution in Haiti, marked by widespread violence in the mass uprising of slaves against white colonists and free people of color in their fight for independence. Thousands of refugees came to the United States. In addition, uprisings such as that of Gabriel in Richmond, VA, occurred, were often led by literate blacks. Some slaveholders embraced the idea of "colonization": arranging for transportation of free blacks to Africa, regardless of where they were born.

In 1816 the American Colonization Society was founded in a collaboration by abolitionists and slaveholders. David Walker makes clear in Article IV of his Appeal (1830), however, that from the point of view of free blacks, the colonization movement was motivated by a desire to remove free blacks

"from among those of our brethren whom they unjustly hold in bondage, so that they may be enabled to keep them the more secure in ignorance and wretchedness, to support them and their children, and consequently they would have the more obedient slave. For if the free are allowed to stay among the slave, they will have intercourse together, and, of course, the free will learn the slaves bad habits, by teaching them that they are MEN, as well as other people, and certainly ought and must be FREE."

Jefferson's passages about slavery and the black race in Notes are referenced and disputed by Walker in the Appeal. He considered Jefferson, "one of as great characters as ever lived among the whites," which increased his vehemence in rebutting them: "Do you believe that the assertions of such a man, will pass away into oblivion unobserved by this people and the world?...I say, that unless we try to refute Mr. Jefferson's arguments respecting us, we will only establish them."[2] Walker writes further:

"Mr. Jefferson's very severe remarks on us have been so extensively argued upon by men whose attainments in literature, I shall never be able to reach, that I would not have meddled with it, were it not to solicit each of my brethren, who has the spirit of a man, to buy a copy of Mr. Jefferson's "Notes on Virginia," and put it in the hand of his son. For let no one of us suppose that the refutations which have been written by our white friends are enough—they are whites—we are blacks. We, and the world wish to see the charges of Mr. Jefferson refuted by the blacks themselves, according to their chance; for we must remember that what the whites have written respecting this subject, is other men's labours, and did not emanate from the blacks."

Jefferson said he thought Blacks were inferior to Whites in terms of beauty and reasoning intelligence.[3] According to Manners, Jefferson's beliefs include the ideas that slavery is demoralizing to both White and Black society and that man is an "imitative animal."


The text is divided into 23 chapters, known as "Queries," each describing a different aspect of the state of Virginia.

  1. Boundaries of Virginia
  2. Rivers
  3. Sea Ports
  4. Mountains
  5. Cascades
  6. Productions mineral, vegetable and animal
  7. Climate
  8. Population
  9. Military force
  10. Marine force
  11. Aborigines
  12. Counties and towns
  13. Constitution
  14. Laws
  15. Colleges, buildings, and roads
  16. Proceedings as to Tories
  17. Religion
  18. Manners
  19. Manufactures
  20. Subjects of commerce
  21. Weights, Measures and Money
  22. Public revenue and expenses
  23. Histories, memorials, and state-papers


  • The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. The Modern Library, 1944.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Writings: Autobiography / Notes on the State of Virginia / Public and Private Papers / Addresses / Letters (1984, ISBN 978-0-94045016-5) Library of America edition.
  • David Tucker, Enlightened Republicanism: A Study of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (Lexington Books, 2008) ISBN 9780739117927
  • R. B. Bernstein, Thomas Jefferson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003; pbk, 2005) ISBN 978-0195181302
  • Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) ISBN 9780674514669


  1. ^ Greg Warnusz (Summer, 1990). "This Execrable Commerce -- Thomas Jefferson and Slavery". Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  2. ^ "David Walker's Appeal". 
  3. ^ Thomas Jefferson. "Notes On the State Of Virginia, Laws".  Jefferson believed that the color of the skin was the primary difference between African Americans and Europeans. He writes in Laws, "The first difference which strikes us is that of colour." Jefferson believed that skin color was the foundation of "greater or lesser" beauty between the two races. Body symmetry and hair texture were other categories for determining beauty between the two races, according to Jefferson.

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